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The gestalt of Anton Corbijn

David Bowie, Nick Cave, Tom Waits... even The Slits are not neglected among Corbijn's portraits of famed musicians. His pair of exhibitions – Hollands Deep and 1-2-3-4, at C/O Berlin through Jan 31 – make for a captivating retrospective.

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Nick Cave

Have you been putting off seeing the hyped retrospective at C/O Berlin because you’re just not sure if portraits of famous musicians will be worth the schlep west? Well then, prepare to be enchanted by the gestalt of Anton Corbijn.

Two exhibitions make up the internationally touring collection, the first of which is Hollands Deep, which presents Corbijn’s main chapters from across the last four decades. The first long stretch, Famouz, is a sort of music hall of fame complete with a delicately posed Christ-like Bowie (1980) and the impossibly contrast-y Miles Davis (1985), with wide pupils that reflect the window and photographer in front of him, amongst many others. Startlingly wonderful are the Kraftwerk I – IV portraits, famously taken not of the members, but of their stand-in mannequins, backstage after a 1981 gig. Already, the tension between the reality and fantasy of photography is palpable – an unshakable feeling throughout.

Scores of smaller square images follow in Star Trak, all shot in low light and united by a light brown sepia tone and effortless compositions. The tight but lengthy grids don’t lend well to thoughtful viewing, but certain favourites stand out in the crowd, such as a grimacing Brian Eno (1990) dramatically lit only on his face and arms, like a Frank Miller panel, and Courtney Love (1999) standing knee deep in the Pacific, as Venus. Still Lives, the most intriguing works in the entire retrospective, hijack paparazzi photography in protest of its privacy-violating tendencies. Large blue-cast portraits of the rich and famous are intentionally loaded with narrative, such as with Lars von Trier (1997), seen walking outside at night, pushing a wheelbarrow full of dirt, stark naked.

A. Somebody was conceived as an homage to deceased musicians whom Corbijn loves, and shot in the isolated Dutch island city, Strijen, where he was born and raised. Dressed up à la Cindy Sherman, Corbijn projects himself, and perhaps his own desire for immortal fame, onto Joplin, Cobain, Marley and Elvis. Besides “A. Curtis” (2001) and “A. Harrison” (2002), many of the images have a one note flatness to them, but as a whole they communicate well the specific brand of loneliness that comes from identifying with lost superstars.

Finishing off Hollands Deep is Inwards & Onwards, celebrating influential artists like Ai Weiwei, Alexander McQueen and even Bernd and Hilla Becher. Bolstering, or perhaps playing on, their artists personas, each is tangibly distinct – Gerhard Richter (2010) is shot so only the back of his head is visible, with a blurry, out of focus painting beyond him, and Jeff Koons (2011) stands, face obscured by a balloon.

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Nina Hagen and Ari Up (of The Slits)

Another torrent awaits you upstairs in 1-2-3-4, a huge selection of musician portraits, hung in clusters. While music plays overhead, casually scan dozens of images of Nick Cave: from him in New York City in 1982, with Burton-esque hair, skyscrapers lighting up the night sky behind him, to a sultry shirtless Cave one day in Santa Monica, 1981. More large clouds bring you close to everyone from Tom Waits to Depeche Mode, Arcade Fire to Herbert Grönemeyer, and The Slits and Siouxsie Sioux, although the often nude shots of lady legends digress away from insightful towards objectifying.

Across all his different series, a unifying aesthetic resounds, built on vivid contrast, striking lighting, and incredible graininess. What began for the self-taught photographer as a means of getting inside the music scene, became after years of technical experimentation and commitment a trove of captivating images of icons that will no doubt be important historical and cultural records.

If there is any ‘truth’ to be found here, it is subtle, idiosyncratic, and maybe even fickle. But the strength of these portraits is their ability to convince you of their reality, seducing you with timeless, cinematic drama that’s worth experiencing face to face. After seeing 600 pieces of the artist’s work, made over 40 years, it seems Corbijn’s sitters are defenselessly vulnerable because they aren’t afraid to be in front of his camera. In those frozen moments, his camera is their only confidant.

HOLLANDS DEEP & 1-2-3-4 Through Jan 31 | C/O Berlin, Hardenbergstraße 22-24, Charlottenburg, S+U-Bhf Zoologischer Garten, Daily 11-20